The Vierwaldstattersee in central Switzerland is a big old Rorschach blot of a lake surrounded by ludicrous alpine handsomeness. It's known as lac des Quatre-Cantons in French and lago dei Quattro Cantoni in Italian. The somewhat unromantic English translation is Lake of the Four Forested Settlements, which might work in Game of Thrones but, let's be honest, needs work in the real world. And there, on the very western end, straddling the River Reuss, is preposterously pretty Lucerne – a modern but also marvellously mediaeval city more than holding its own against all that natural beauty. Compact enough to be walkable but large enough not to be a backwater, Lucerne is one of the comeliest cities in Europe, if not the world.
The main landmark in Lucerne is flower-bedecked Chapel Bridge which doglegs across the mouth of the Reuss. First built in 1333, this wooden structure features a series of 17th century historical paintings in the roof gables and a stone octagonal watchtower halfway across. The oldest covered bridge in Europe, it was badly damaged by fire in 1993 but quickly repaired and renovated. The old town is pretty much all north of the Reuss and it's here you will find half-timbered houses with painted facades and the well-preserved mediaeval Musegg wall and its nine towers – all part of the old fortifications of the city.
A boat tour of the Vierwaldstattersee (oh, let's call it Lake Lucerne to avoid tongue swallowing) is pretty much a given – the paddlewheel steamers and other motor vessels a popular way to get around for locals and tourists alike. Our guide for the day, Heidi Muffler, said her father could name the boat simply from the cry of its horn. Luckily, you don't have to. Boats (myswissalps.com/boatlakelucerne) leave from the pier opposite the train station and there are trips to suit all needs and speeds (lakelucerne.ch/en/timetable-fares). Sitting on the top deck of a slow boat surrounded by calm waters and that alpine backdrop is a great way to experience the area. Take a one-way trip to one of the pretty towns on the lake and hike back.
If all that history is taking its toll, then take yourself off to the glass-fronted Culture and Convention Centre (kkl-luzern.ch/en) on the lakeside next to the train station. The KKL, as it is known, was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, opened in 1998 and soon became a cultural highlight of the city. Conventions, banquets, classical concerts and gigs are its bread and butter but it also boasts a restaurant with panoramic views of the city, a cafe and popular bar. If trains, planes and automobiles are your thing then head for the Swiss Museum of Transport (verkehrshaus.ch) and its massive collection of, well, pretty much anything with a wheel.
Bag a table, if you can, on the balcony of Pfistern Zunfthausrestaurant (restaurant-pfistern.ch/en), an old bakers' guild house right on the banks of the river overlooking the Chapel Bridge. It's dark and woody inside but sunny and bright on the balcony under grey-and-yellow striped awnings. Good for people watching. The food is quintessential Swiss fare: veal, entrecote, Schweins cordon bleu, rosti potatoes, buurebratwurst (Lucerne farmers sausage) and the like. Seriously, skip breakfast if you plan to dine here. The Luz Seebistro is a pretty little cafe (luzern.com/en/luz-seebistro) on the waterside right next to the boat station and is good for snacks and cakes in an amazing setting.
In a city with all manner of expensive hotels, the Radisson Blu at Inselquai 12 (radissonblu.com/en/hotel-lucerne) is both funky and kind to the wallet, with double rooms from 143 Swiss Francs a night (about $190). It's tucked away behind the railway station, about a five-minute walk from the train platforms and the lakeside proper. It's modern, functional and worth it for the breakfast buffet alone. If money is no object try the magnificent five-star Palace Lucerne (palace-luzern.ch/en) on the northern shore. It's a casino, too, so you can get in touch with your inner James Bond.
A Swiss Travel Pass covers unlimited travel on public buses, boats and trains around the country, gives holders up to 50 per cent discount on mountain railways and cableways and free entry to more than 490 museums. Children under 16 travel free with a guardian using the pass. For details and prices see myswitzerland.com/rail
Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.